Monday, April 21, 2008

Responding to Response Papers

I am reading and grading response papers from the graduate class this evening (and I post this having realized this week that at least a couple of students on campus know this blog and know it's mine), and I find myself a little baffled at the concept of the response paper itself. And I'm the one who assigned it...

It's funny: I've never entirely gotten what a response paper is supposed to be. As an undergrad, I veered wildly from the my-personal-feelings-on-this-book sort of rumination to the very-short-but-otherwise-formal academic argument. And I got advised away from both styles at different points.

In grad school, the ones I recall most regularly actually had specific prompts, so they weren't quite so unfocused, but what I remember most about them was that I felt willing to play a bit. A response paper in a textual studies and bibliography class on the paratext of an assigned text found me writing the entire essay in paratext: a title with footnotes, but no body. Clever, I think still, but kind of pointless beyond the playfulness. I also wrote a song (to the tune of "Cruella DeVil") about Jerome McGann in that class, riffing on an episode that McGann describes in one of his classes in The Textual Condition (I think).

In my 300-level class last fall, I assigned them, but pushed in clear and explicit terms, the mini-formal-argument model, which I think ended up putting way too much pressure on them. But it was the only way I knew how to grade writing, was with some sorts of formal infrastructure to build my comments around. But this didn't do the job, since while the best students adjusted, some who struggled ended up going toward formal coherence over actual thought-processing.

In the grad course, I've tried to encourage the rumination approach. As I've been reading, responding to, and (unfortunately) grading them, I've found that the papers I respond to most strongly are those that are hammering out an idea, in conversation with the actual readings we've been doing, but mostly something that actually seems to be dealing with a critical problem. For some essays, that problem has been simply trying to make sense of a difficult theoretical position in practical terms; others have taken their own reading impulses and examined them closely; still others have taken a more formal route, but done so in decidedly exigent terms.

I've also found, though, that I like to read playful response papers--bits of personal narrative seem to have a positive rhetorical effect on this reader, where they wouldn't in a final paper. I like the moments when students actually narrate their train of thought (often blaming me for "mucking up my thought process" to quote from one essay). This may be a readerly quirk, a bit of seeing myself in my students.

The best papers? They take a real problem and tackle it head on. They engage the critical conversation in a more-than-perfuctory way. And they play. They don't always reach a conclusion, they don't always break new ground, and they don't necessarily even have a thesis.

But in figuring this out, I'm still not entirely sure how to teach that up front. So, dear reader: how do you assign, teach, and respond to response papers? What do you look for? What do say to them?

12 comments:

Dr. Crazy said...

Ok, I have two kinds of "response papers" that I assign, that basically fall into the two categories that you describe in your post. I think each does a different job. So first:

*Reaction* papers to me are different from *Critical Response* papers. When I ask students to write a reaction, I'm looking for less formal reaction to the reading, for them to talk about their experience with a text or how it relates to their own lives. I tend to use this version of paper in my class that focuses a lot on sexuality, as the students really need a way of communicating with me about how they're responding that is personal. And I've got a rubric for how I grade these that I can pass along if you want it.

*Critical Response* papers, however, serve a different purpose. To me, these papers are about showing students how to engage - quickly and without fluff or filler - with a text *as a critic*. In other words, it's about coming up with an argument (though obviously a miniature one in size), choosing a passage to analyze in relation to that argument, and relating that analysis to the text as a whole (and, in the case of my courses, typically to a unit or other larger issue in the course). These papers force students to demonstrate close reading skills, they don't allow for students to get away with letting critics speak for them (for there are no critics allowed) and so must have their own ideas (and the papers are worth only a tiny amount and so they can experiment with their ideas without fear of ruining their grades, which also is positive for the big paper at the end of the course because they're more confident by the time that they write it), and they teach them to tighten their prose (esp. in upper-level classes, I refuse to read more than 1 single-spaced page - it imposes a limit that ultimately does more to eliminate the passive voice and things like "throughout the history of Man" than anything I've ever seen).

I've got to say, I'm not so into the experimental or creative response papers, because with the student population that I teach I really do not feel like they've got the foundational skills that they really need to have that the other two approaches teach. I think students often see the creative option as a soft option, and I really don't enjoy fighting that perception.

But anyway, as to what to say to them, I really think you've got to know why you're assigning them, and you've got to be clear with them about your reasons. What are they supposed to get out of doing the response paper for you? For me, in the case of reaction papers, they serve like a weekly journal for the course and they allow students to communicate their ideas as they develop without feeling shy about doing so in front of the class. In the case of critical response papers, it's about learning to be one's own critic and to write tight, straightforward, academic prose that demonstrates careful close-reading and argument, and that serves like a building block for longer writing.

Sometimes students find a way to be playful in one or the other genre, but I think demanding playfulness is tough. Not all students want to play, and even those who do can't muster it weekly. Maybe you could show students examples of response papers that worked best and less well at the beginning?

Thoroughly Educated said...

Horace, this raises a question that's been nibbling at me for ages. Where did the Response Paper come from? When did it start?Did it come from rhet-comp land and creep into higher levels of the curriculum from people's experience in freshman comp classes? I was never assigned such a thing, nor ever heard them mentioned, in high school or college or grad school. (I went to college in the mid-80s.) I, personally, never assign them because I don't want to appear to encourage "my personal feelings" papers, but I can see that they might be fine if one has a grip on their pedagogical purpose. I'd be interested to know whether the b'sphere's can collectively pinpoint its first experience of this beastie.

Andi said...

For the population I teach - undergrads at a community college - I use response papers a lot. Sometimes they are simply "reflections," what you're terming reaction papers, on what they have read, what they have learned. Usually I grade those for completeness - meaning they have to fill a page double-spaced. Sometimes I have them do self-evaluations of their own writing (this is in writing classes) where they have to analyze their own strengths and weaknesses. Here depth of thought and completeness earn them their grade.

But you're right - it's hard to grade these by some rubric - I do, however, like the comment about creating such a rubric.

For me, most of the time I just want them to write anything - and for some of my folks just filling a page is an accomplishment.

Thanks for helping me think about this.

Academic said...

I've done something where I required weekly reflective journaling for the sole purpose of trying to get students to think about the physics we were working on outside of class. But I think this idea of spending 15-30 minutes a day outside of a class about what you did in that room is a function lost on both student and teacher.

Fretful Porpentine said...

Horace, this raises a question that's been nibbling at me for ages. Where did the Response Paper come from? When did it start?Did it come from rhet-comp land and creep into higher levels of the curriculum from people's experience in freshman comp classes? I was never assigned such a thing, nor ever heard them mentioned, in high school or college or grad school. (I went to college in the mid-80s.)

For what it's worth, I remember being assigned to write response papers in a few college classes in the mid-90s (one freshman seminar and one upper-level women's studies class, for sure; maybe there were others).

I haven't assigned them myself, in part because I always found them stressful. I was never sure exactly how formal they were supposed to be or what counted as an appropriate response, and I tend to agonize unnecessarily over introductions and conclusions, which makes really short papers a pain to write. If I were going to assign them, though, I'd probably just mark them done or not done, as I do with other informal writing. (I do have daily in-class writing questions, and I've occasionally experimented with blogging or online discussion. Neither is formally graded, although I do keep track of which students are writing exceptionally insightful comments and which are just going through the motions.)

Sisyphus said...

Hmm, I had a Shakespeare senior seminar where we had to write a response paper for each play, basically proving we had read and allowing us more time/space to bring up our reactions and comments about the play than just a weekly seminar. The only other assignment we had was the research paper at the end.

I have _never_ had to do any sort of response or reaction paper at the grad level, so I don't know what those should look like. I did have to do presentations in pretty much every grad seminar instead. That doesn't mean response papers wouldn't be useful at the grad level, just that I am ignorant of how to structure them.

I have assigned or been told to assign response papers in my comp classes and GE course I've taught sometimes, mostly as a way to make sure they were doing their reading and had read the stuff well enough to be able to form thoughts about it. Those get a check or a check-minus in my book.

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Steven Smith said...

Really interesting article. All of the ideas and of information's you provide is really useful for me to used in doing a lot of response paper. Some good point you gave was very helpful for me to use.

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